The invasion of African palm into the Lacandón Jungle

Photo of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, Chiapas..

By: Mongabay Latam

In Boca de Chajul, a small community of Marqués de Comillas municipality, in Chiapas, Rafael Lombera has seen large expanses of the Lacandón Jungle disappear and it has been principally —he says— due to the custom of exploiting natural resources and because of cattle ranching. Today one of the causes is the cultivation of African palm.

When you travel to Chajul, and to the entrance of this small town, you observe signs at the sides of the road that read: “Environmental Services Payment,” a Mexican government program that promotes conservation on private properties or on ejidos. That’s how sections of the jungle dispute the landscape with the parcels planted with African palm.

In the municipality of Marqués de Comillas, according to a study of the National Institute of Ecology, are the only stretches of land in Mexico with flood forests because in the other states, like Tabasco, they have disappeared.

Rafael Lombera’s huts are raised by large wooden supports that allow the passage of waters from the Lacantún River when it comes out to flood its surroundings. This jungle corner is the gateway to the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve; flora and fauna researchers come there all year. It’s also the region where palm planting began in Mexico, in the middle of the last century.

Changes in the jungle

 Most of the area conducive to palm-culture is in southeastern Mexico (two million hectares, according to the federal government), a region to which Chiapas belongs, which has the agricultural and climatic conditions to extend up to 400,000 hectares of palm plantations, a crop destined to satiate the needs of foreign and national markets that demand biodiesel and oils for the food industry.

Rafael Lombera, who has lived in this region since he was a child, just over four decades ago, notices changes in the dynamics of the jungle. He has a clear opinion about what is the biggest threat to one of Mexico’s largest natural reserves: “the jungle is being cut down to sow African palm.”

The cultivation of African palm has been driven by both the state and federal governments. State officials say they do it on land where there is no longer any jungle, land that had already been used for cattle ranching.

In 2017, estimates from the Chiapas Secretariat of the Countryside were that there were around 64,000 hectares planted in the state; the goal is to reach 100,000. For this, the Chiapas government promoted the creation of four palm nurseries that, according to the Institute for the Promotion of Tropical Agriculture, are the largest in Latin America.

Until 2013, the Agro-food and Fisheries Information Service (SIAP, its initials in Spanish) calculated that 44 % of the palm planted in Chiapas was in jungle areas.

Fields without life

 The researcher León Enrique Ávila, a specialist in African palm and a professor at the Intercultural University of Chiapas, said that the planting of palm in the state does not include an effective environmental control.

Antonio Castellanos, a researcher at the Multidisciplinary Research Center on Chiapas and the Southern Border, with six years of work with palm producers in the ejidos, said that one of the conditions for receiving support (financial aid) from the Mexican government “is to commit to planting it only as a mono-crop.” Where there is African Palm, there is no more flora.

For Leon Avila the sensation he gets when traveling palm areas is like being in a “desert of silence where there is no longer noise at dawn.” He has walked the region for years and says he has seen how that plant has changed the dynamics of the flora, fauna and communities.

The people who used to live from their crops and the products that the jungle offered them —explained the specialist— now anxiously await the date on which the owners of the factories pay the palm growers and they, in turn, distribute paychecks to their day laborer employees.

The researcher agrees with Antonio Castellanos: the principal flaw is in the fact that the crop has been introduced as a mono-crop. And according to the specialized publication Gloobal, “the thousands of hectares of African palm imply not only maintaining deforestation but also increasing the CO2 and increasing water pollution with agro-chemicals in regions of high biodiversity, such as the biosphere regions (Montes Azules) and the Lacandón Jungle.”

The reality that contradicts the speech

 According to the Bank of Mexico, the country imports around 462,000 tons of palm oil per year, which is equivalent to 82 % of the quantity that its industries consume. Therefore, 200,850 hectares are required to produce the supply of oil for the internal market.

The conditions are set for the crop to advance because there are programs that promote the planting of de African palm in the state governments, in the federal government and in foreign funds.

Bárbara Linares Bravo, a researcher at the College of the Southern Border (Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Ecosur), learned about productive reconversion with the arrival of African palm in the Tulijá Valley in northern Chiapas. She observes a strong change that is eradicating productive and self-consumption customs with the arrival of international and national support for propagating palm cultivation.

“The expansion of this crop, paradoxically, in contrast to the discourse of sustainable development that justifies it, increases the social and environmental contradictions,” Linares Bravo pointed out.

The advance of African palm crops in the Chiapas jungle is developed under three commitments the country made with international actors. One of them is the Mesoamerica Project, with 10 adhering nations (Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Panama and Mexico) and its Mesoamerican Biofuels Program, within which Mexico established its productive reconversion program.

Additionally, Mexico has 10 palm oil extraction plants; seven are in Chiapas and all are private. Producers organize around them and do what’s necessary to “clean” their lands and earn money —for example— 5,000 pesos ($277 dollars) per month for the all of the corn crop they planted for sale and for consumption, in order to receive up to 35, 000 pesos ($1,862 dollars) each month for the mono-crop, according to the testimony of José Baldovinos, palm grower of Boca de Chajul.

Ant deforestation

 Baldovinos has planted 27 hectares with African palm near Boca de Chajul and is ready to add another six. This cultivation permitted facing the medical expenses that he had when his two parents were gravely ill.

Like thousands of residents miles of Marqués de Comillas and the jungle region, Baldovinos came from Michoacán in 1972 in a small plane that landed on a rural road or simply in a clearing among the vegetation. “It was pure jungle then, but has been changing drastically,” he remembers.

The indiscriminate practice of cattle ranching and African palm cultivation began within the ejidos in the 1970s. Fallow lands (“acahuales”) proliferated. They are some spaces of jungle where the ejido owners cut, wait a couple of years and then enroll those lands in financing programs for African palm, thus dodging the “obstacle” that there is jungle. They cut to pave the way to the crop that is profitable for them.

A source from the Chiapas government requested anonymity told Mongabay Latam that currently the main cause of deforestation in the jungle is the logging of “clandestine companies” that work at night.

It is the ant advance of palm in the tropical region that covers most of southern Mexico. According to the testimonies collected by Mongabay Latam, this is how palm crops have grown in Veracruz, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas (the states with soils suitable for growing palm) on lands for cattle ranching, pasture lands, “acahuales” or clandestinely deforested jungle sites.

Exit for residents

The Africana Palm plantation in Boca Chajul, located on the border with Guatemala, Lacandón Jungle, Chiapas. Photo: Moysés Zúñiga Santiago.

 African palm, according to the testimony of Rafael Lombera and José Baldovinos, is the crop that offers the opportunity to get out of poverty to all the campesinos who own small portions of land that are increasing their profits exponentially.

Baldovinos has been a farmer for more than 65 years and only now achieved economic peace of mind. He earns 30,000 pesos per month without major efforts when the rest of his life, working other crops like beans, corn or chili, achieved a minimum part with maximum effort.

The equation is simple: in the Environmental Services Payment program the Mexican Government pays 300 pesos per year per hectare of jungle (in 2017) and one hectare planted with palm in the productive age generates a profit of 100,000 pesos per year.

Rafael Lombera, who is an ejido owner in a jungle section that more people manage, assures that: “the people are getting desperate and are cutting down the jungle to plant palm.”

It’s a logic that runs through the jungle region of Chiapas that stretches along the border with Guatemala, where there are parcels of land that add up to 4,000 hectares, and that supply the factory of the Sustainable Oils Company, according to researchers calculations.

And in Mexican territory there are also producers who monopolize up to 1,000 hectares or small property owners who just begin —like don José in the beginning— to accumulate their first extensions of land. “This is how it’s changing from jungle to palm,” said don José Baldovinos, owner of one of the town’s largest houses.

“The future is palm,” lamented Rafael Lombera, with a lottery game in his hands in which figure photos of animals and vegetables he took inside that jungle thicket that raised up in front of him on the other side of the Lacantún River.


Originally Published in Spanish by Mongabay Latam

Thursday, February 13, 2020

México: la invasión de la palma africana en la Selva Lacandona

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

One Comment on “The invasion of African palm into the Lacandón Jungle

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